Computer Voices

In one of my app libraries, I have a collection of articles. One day I noticed a pop-up option to listen. “Short on time?” the pop-up advertises, choose the listen option. Sure enough, in the toolbar row on the bottom, there’s a small icon of a headset.

Normally I prefer to read these articles. They can be quite dense, sometimes requiring me to reread a passage to make sense of it. Also, there are lots of diagrams, models, and other graphs illustrating the text. Today I decided to try out the listen option while I was doing something else in the kitchen. After all, I’m a long-time podcast listener. Recently I discovered the magic of audio books. I felt excited about having these lengthy articles read to me.

About 2 minutes in, I realized this was not a good option. Unlike podcasts, who are hosted by real people, and audiobooks, read by real people and often actors, the article featured a simulated, computer voice. It was horrid. The voice had a synthetic, metallic twang to it, making it obvious that a computer was “reading” it. Everything was monotone, including all the descriptions for the many diagrams and other points. I listened for a few more minutes, trying to get into it. However, I realized I wasn’t paying attention because it sounded so boring. Admittedly, a non-fiction article might not be the most exciting content to listen to, but the computer-voice made it extra dry and lifeless.

As I shut off the audio version, in favor of something more aurally pleasing, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. There are so many great options available for audio readings. I’m sure many even sound like real people with tone, inflection, cadence, enunciation, emphasis, basically anything to make the text sound alive and real.

I realize the rise of AI, and other technological advances, raise real concerns about audio recordings. For example, AI can analyze an actor or author reading his/her own work, then replicate it for something new, without paying royalties or having permission. There are real ethics issues here. But at the same time, there must be some kind of balance between providing a reasonable sounding audio version to your customers, that doesn’t infringe on the work of artists and authors, or raise ethics concerns.

Until that library service figures out a better audio option, I’ll stick with reading those articles for now.

Holding Patterns

At the start of the new year, it’s common for people to be forward thinking. To create resolutions and goals for things they want to accomplish, or change, in the next 12 months. However, sometimes it can also be useful to reflect on what’s happened. Or how we’ve arrived at the place we find ourselves on December 31.

Several months ago I started seeing an osteopath. I went for one thing that I thought was the problem. Surprisingly, I learned that something in my spine needed work first. As the treatments took effect, my body shifted and changed. Some of the changes were new and different as a response. Others were familiar. After a couple sessions, the osteopath noticed some old holding patterns taking place in my body. Though I couldn’t describe exactly what she felt to indicate the changes, there was likely something routine and habitual about how my body responded.

It was the kind of thing that I wasn’t consciously aware of. This is likely because the holding patterns are etched into the fibers of my body, reinforced through years of experiences. Incidentally, this is part of the inspiration for my “Human Archives” series. Since the patterns feel comfortable, or recognizable to me, I’m not always aware of what’s happening. It’s as though my body slips into its old routine in response to any new shifts of changes. A silent form of sublte resistance. Even if the shifts are welcome and expected, it can be hard to resist the temptation and allure of sinking back into what’s familiar and known.

I contemplated all this after my last appointment. What were my holding patterns? How did they develop? And since they feel like the “norm” to me, how would I ever increase my awareness of them? Or learn how to tell if a holding pattern was hurting or helping me?

Though I gave up on new year’s resolutions long ago, I’ve been mindful of learning more about my holding patterns. The new year provides inspiration to reflect on the experiences and how they molded my body over time. And to think about which ones to carry forward for the next 12 months, or consider ways to redirect them into something new that feels more beneficial.

The Smell of Spaghetti

The holidays evoke a lot of senses and a lot of emotions. In my experience, people are quick to describe the sights, sounds, and tastes of the holidays. Lights are a popular feature to discuss. As well, some people have favorite holiday foods they look forward to. Others enjoy the distinct holiday noises of special songs or bells ringing and jingling. It seems, however, that few people take time to detail the wonderful smells of the holiday season. I’ve always had a super sniffer, so perhaps this is why smells feel so important to me. In sweetly scented areas it’s a blessing, but in other places, like public transit, it can be a bit of a curse.

A telltale sign of the holiday season for me is the aroma of freshly cut firs, a crisp tang in the air, and the distinctive smell of snow coming. Other scents include citrus, baked spice cookies, holiday cakes, and ginger.

One summer I recall talking with my friend’s son about his daycare years. I think at the time he was about 10 or 11 years old so it had been quite a while for him. He went to a private home daycare. The provider frequently served pasta to the kids for lunch. A prominent and distinct memory for him was the smell of spaghetti.

As he described the smell, a change came over him. He laughed slightly and flushed warmly, perhaps at the memory of the delicious spaghetti lunches. It was heartwarming to see the powerful impact that remembering this scent had for him. Hearing him speak, I could remember smells from my own childhood that evoked a similar sensation.

Before the early waves of Covid started, robbing people of their sense of smell, I don’t think this sense got the credit it deserved. It’s a strong sense that steers us away from danger (i.e., bad milk, leaked gas), gives us information (i.e., illness, attraction), or provides comfort. Importantly, it also affects how we taste things.

This holiday season, take a moment to enjoy the gift of this impressive sense.

Happy Holidays!

Intelligent X-rays

Today I read about a new use for generative AI chatbots, personal shopping buddies for the holiday season. Every day, it seems, I hear about more cool, or nefarious, uses of artificial intelligence (AI). One of my favorites was learning about AI being trained to detect cancer on medical scans. On the flip side, people are quick to point out this will drastically impact the radiology profession. However, from my perspective, this seems like a perfect use case for AI.

I started thinking about this more on Friday when I had to get my toe x-rayed. I have a vague recollection of hurting it. Within a week of some minor discomfort starting, the toe swelled so much it wasn’t touching the ground and had some bruising. Hence the x-ray, to rule out a break to the joint. During my hour+ wait to get the x-ray, I had a lot of time to think. Mostly, since it was Friday, I was thinking about how long it would take for me to get my results. And how much faster, and cooler, it would be if AI was doing the review instead of a human. Maybe the results could even be available, at least for something like a broken toe, in real time.

Even though using AI to review medical scans will impact the radiology profession, it also provides a lot of benefits. AI is quick and can run 24/7 doing the reviews. This means patients will get results faster and medical facilities will have less backlog. I would imagine that some radiologists may experience fatigue looking at so many scans hour after hour. Maybe it would be nice to have AI available for an instant second opinion for some of the trickier results.

Based on what I’ve been reading, AI can also be very accurate with some things, like detecting cancer. Though it takes a long time to train, it feels very promising to me. There would still be a need for humans, but maybe AI can do some of the heavy lifting. AI can review the easier, straightforward scans to provide patients with peace of mind as soon as possible. Meanwhile, AI could review more complex scans and then flag them for human review, providing a built-in second opinion.

While I wait for AI-reviewed x-rays, and my own results, I’m hanging around with a taped up toe.

Traveling with Apps

Last month I took my second airplane trip post-Covid. This time I went international, from Canada to the US. To expedite the many processes involved, I downloaded three apps and pre-booked a time with security. All in the hopes of making the painful parts faster with less waiting and aggravation. For the most part, it did expedite a few things, such as immigration on both sides. I couldn’t really tell with security and the check-in process still seemed kind of clunky.

The three apps included the airline, mobile passport control (for crossing into the States) and ArriveCAN (for coming back to Canada). I booked time slots with security both ways. The first line wasn’t that busy so I’m not sure if the reservation made a difference. On the return trip, the security line was long so maybe it helped a tiny bit, but we still had to wait.

The airline app offered some neat perks. For example, I could check the status of my flight and the inbound flight. This was a nice feature. By tracking the inbound flight I had a sense if there was going to be a delay. The app included maps of the airport terminals. However, the app didn’t help much with the check in process.

The immigration apps seemed to make things a little bit faster. Having filled out my immigration information on the app allowed me to jump to the front of the line on both sides. However, I felt annoyed to continually pull out my phone to show somebody. At the self-serve immigration kiosk, I entered my info and received a printed receipt. I showed the paper receipt to leave immigration and then handed it to an agent leaving customs. More juggling with the phone and papers to get through the process.

On the whole, it did make some parts faster. However, I found navigating through the many apps and locating the right information quickly to be a little cumbersome. When I’m moving around carrying lots of things, having paper (e.g., boarding pass) can sometimes be quicker. Otherwise I was taking my phone in and out of my bag, mostly because pockets aren’t big enough in women’s clothing, unlocking the screen, searching for the app, adjusting brightness, also pulling out my passport, etc. In other words, it wasn’t the seamless, high-tech solution I was expecting, but offered some promising aspects.

A Tolerance for Typos

Typos. They’re everywhere, even with so many automated features built in to make our writing better, more grammatically correct, and spelled properly. Sometimes when I’m typing the typos correct themselves. Usually this happens if it’s a small error. Other times, the improperly spelled word appears underlined, or highlighted in some way, to catch my attention.

If the typo isn’t fixed automatically, the spell check is available. This feature also checks grammar. I use a plug-in for my blog that tracks things like:

  • passive voice
  • sentence length
  • variety in my sentences

We all have plenty of options, automated or manual, to improve our writing. So why then, do I still see so many errors? More importantly, I see so many avoidable errors. Also, in situations where maybe these features are not so available, I see lots of typos. To be fair, I also have the occasional typo, or incorrect word, with some messaging apps. However, I’m one of those people that still takes a few extra seconds to put punctuation and capital letters in the majority of my text messages. It took me years to feel comfortable using internet slang. I still need to look up slang on a semi-regular basis.

In a recent round of hiring, I overlooked resume typos from two candidates. One was a spelling mistake that any checker would have caught. Not that long ago, these resumes wouldn’t have even made it to a phone screening. Fortunately for these candidates, my tolerance for typos has relaxed in recent years. I suppose this is a combination of making my own typos and learning to ignore them because they’re so ubiquitous.

With so many options to use AI for generating content, I can’t help but wonder if these new tools will also learn to mimic and recreate our typos. It would certainly add an element of authenticity, as though a real human created the content. However, it does perpetuate an ongoing decline in our written language. While some might argue language is meant to evolve, I would be hesitant to use that as an excuse for poor spelling, abundant usage of internet slang, and easy grammar mistakes.

While we do have tools and features to make it easy for us to write and spell perfectly, we have not perfected the use of them.